Riddick key to unlocking Irish offense

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“I really have high high expectations for him. He’s an elite player.
He’s learning a position, but I think we’ll be talking a lot about Theo
Riddick as we move through the season.”

Those were the comments from head coach Brian Kelly during preseason camp that had Irish fans so excited about the potential of Theo Riddick. Yet after two games, Riddick has yet to make an impact on the Irish offense. His four catches for 53 yards and two carries for three yards certainly don’t equate to the glowing praise Kelly showered on Riddick. The Irish passing offense is still averaging 293 yards a game, but it’s the 81st ranking in scoring offense that points to the fact that something just isn’t clicking.

Riddick’s production mirrors that schism. Outside of the pseudo-Hail Mary that Nate Montana completed to Theo in the final seconds of the first half, the Irish are still waiting for the sophomore speedster to make an impact.

To the coaching staff’s credit, they aren’t ready to give up on Riddick just yet.

“We have to be a little bit patient in that process of getting him where we need him to be,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I see a comfort level with him each and every week where he’s starting to feel a lot more comfortable. I think we’re in the early stages of development of a very good player.”

Heading into a Michigan State game, if you’re looking for a key to beating the Spartan’s defense, it’s throwing the football underneath. Spartan defensive backs will be pushing themselves to minimize the deep ball, and for the most part veteran safeties Marcus Hyde and Trent Robinson have improved against the over-the-top throw, something I expect the Irish to try and do with Michael Floyd and TJ Jones. That said, if the secondary is stretching vertically, there’s nothing but room for Riddick to operate on the interior of the football field.

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar was upbeat when talking about Riddick, a guy he thinks is really close to breaking through.

“He’s a play away,” Molnar said. “If he gets the ball delivered to him on one play or if he made one catch in the right position, he probably could take it the distance.”

To Riddick’s credit, he’s staying positive and working hard as he works to become a full-time wide receiver, albeit one with above-average running back skills.

“I’m still in the process of becoming a complete wide receiver,” Riddick said yesterday after practice. “I believe the hard part of the transition is over. Now it’s just getting into the little details and little things like that.”

For the Irish to win this Saturday night in hostile territory, those little things need to include some catches in the open field and wreaking havoc over the middle in the Spartans secondary.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

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Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In a sense, [the bye week] was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

“He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.

And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold

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Of Notre Dame’s six games thus far this season, none of the opponents were necessarily-known commodities. Georgia has moved into prime playoff positioning by now, but as of the season’s second week, the Bulldogs were simply a strong defense trying to keep a first-time starting freshman quarterback in the game. Four of the other five foes were also trotting out first-year starters, the not-so-vaunted Miami (OH) being the exception.

All that changes this weekend. No. 11 USC is clearly an oft-discussed team, both among Irish fans and all college football spectators. As is usually the case, the Trojans are led by a high-profile quarterback.

Those views come from far away, though. For a closer, perhaps more introspective perspective, let’s turn to Zach Helfand of The Los Angeles Times

DF: First off, how long have you been on the Trojans beat with The Los Angeles Times?

ZH: This is my second season filling the big shoes of Gary Klein, who moved to covering the Rams for us. I’ve covered USC basketball a bit longer. This will be my fourth basketball season.

I think I am legally required to start any USC conversation with junior quarterback Sam Darnold. His season may not have been as some predicted it would be, but it has certainly not been a failure. By a mile, he is the best passer the Irish secondary has seen to date, and that secondary is the defense’s primary vulnerability. How can Notre Dame limit Darnold’s effectiveness?

Yeah, this game will probably hinge on Darnold. If he plays like he did in the second half last week, USC can probably win. If he plays like he did the rest of the season, Notre Dame should be fine. For an opposing defense, the difference between great Darnold and average Darnold is usually a matter of two things. The first is the ability to disguise blitzes and coverages to give him a lot of different looks. Teams have had success with a mix of cover zero — bringing the house to test USC’s fairly pedestrian receiving corps —  and dropping eight into coverage, rushing three and limiting Darnold’s creativity and penchant for making high-risk, high-reward throws.

Secondly, defenses have had success when they’ve kept Darnold in the pocket and taken his legs out of the game. Darnold isn’t Louisville’s Heisman-winning Lamar Jackson, but he’s probably better than anyone in college at scrambling to extend passing plays. It’s his best weapon as a quarterback, I think. When he’s not moving, he’s usually not playing as well.

To my memory, Washington State succeeded in pressuring Darnold quite a bit in USC’s one loss. This past Friday night aside, the Cougars are a dynamic team. Was their success in that regard more a credit to them or a failing by the Trojans offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has been an unexpected strength this year, thus making this question suddenly pertinent.

A little bit of both. Washington State’s pass rush is really good (I love Hercules Mata’afa.) and Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought some very creative, very effective blitz packages. USC also lost three starting linemen that game and had to play two true freshman. That never helps.

Flipping sides of the ball, the Irish need to run the ball to succeed. That may be a foundational tenant to any football team, but it has taken on quite the emphasis with Notre Dame this year. USC’s defensive front seven might not be on par with Georgia’s, but it is nothing to scoff at. Will it be up to the task of limiting Josh Adams and Co.?

With respect to Josh Adams, USC has seen better a rusher this season, Stanford’s Bryce Love, and done fairly well (17 rushes, 160 yards — but 75 of them came on one early run, which counts as a win against Love this year). The difference with Notre Dame is the offensive line. It’s probably the best line USC will see this year. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s typical m.o. is to neutralize a team’s strength and worry about the other stuff later, so I expect USC to sell out to stop the run and see if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush can win with his arm.

One way or another, the ball has been on the ground a lot in USC’s seven games, both to the Trojans’ benefit and dismay. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

As always, turnovers can make or break a game and a season. That seems to be even more the case with the Trojans this year. Do I have this right – In only seven games, USC has both forced and given up 16 turnovers?

Yup. Top 10 and bottom 10. And, weirdly, USC’s defense has given up only 10 points off turnovers (there were also an interception and a fumble returned for touchdowns). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has scored on 11 of 14 turnovers. So something’s gotta give.

(Note from Douglas: One of those three occasions came when Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds left before halftime. Another came when Notre Dame recovered a North Carolina fumble and drained all of the game’s final 7:10 in 11 plays.)

On one hand, the follow-up question should be, what is going so wrong with the offense to give the ball away more than twice a game? The obvious flipside to that is, how is the defense able to take the ball away so often? Notre Dame is plenty proud of its 14 forced turnovers through six games, but some of that feels as much opportunistic as anything, not that opportunism is a fault by any means.

Offensively, it’s mostly been Darnold. He has nine interceptions and fumbled three times last week. He’s cut down on the interceptions recently, though, and the fumbles were somewhat flukish, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s solved the giveaway problem or not.

Some of the defensive success on turnovers has definitely been luck. USC is significantly ahead of last season’s clip, but it’s also a byproduct of Pendergast’s defense. It’s very aggressive and attacking. It gives up a lot of big plays but also produces big plays. And senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has forced the issue a lot by making disruptive plays near the ball.

Trojans running back Ronald Jones averages 6.3 yards per carry to gain 640 rushing yards this season along with eight touchdowns. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I’ve been pretty quick here. What key names (read: Ronald Jones) have I not mentioned that Irish fans should be ready to hear frequently Saturday night? Are there any other wrinkles I am missing?

Definitely Ronald Jones II. When he’s healthy, and he more or less is right now, he’s one of the best backs in the country. Also Daniel Imatorbhebhe at tight end. He hasn’t been healthy all season, but could play his first significant time of the season Saturday. He’s dangerous.

On defense, a very important player will be Iman Marshall. He was supposed to be an excellent cornerback. He has been underwhelming but is still talented. If USC stacks the box, he’ll be under a lot of pressure to perform.

While I have you, Vegas predicts a final of Notre Dame 31, USC 28. Not just the score, though include that prediction if you have it, how do you see this weekend going? 

I think Notre Dame’s going to win, let’s say 34-28. My confidence in this is, like, 60 percent. I would not be shocked if USC pulls the road upset. I think it’s going to be close the whole way, but Notre Dame grinds down USC with the run game, and USC’s ball security issues will be too costly.

Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles

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Irish coach Brian Kelly declared Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush healthy for this weekend’s top-15 matchup with USC. Of course, anytime facing the No. 11 team in the country, Kelly wants to have his starting quarterback at his disposal, even if Wimbush is entering only his sixth collegiate start.

Kelly alluded to Wimbush’s inexperience and continued struggles in the passing game while also pointing out his broader successes.

“[Wimbush is] developing at the quarterback position,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In these bye weeks, we evaluate and self-scout. He’s been really productive in a number of areas for us: moving the chains, fourth down conversions, third downs, big plays. He’s done a lot of really good things to get us to where we are today.

“There has to be some improvement in some other areas, but from a productivity standpoint, he’s done some really good things and he’s only going to get better.”

In other words, the Irish coaching staff sees Wimbush as still developing, yet offering drive-sustaining and points-creating production.

The need for growth and development is obvious. Wimbush has completed only 52.3 percent of his passes this season and averages 5.92 yards per pass attempt. Both those figures fall below expectations, even for a first-year starter.

RELATED READING: A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On passing game struggles

Most are pretty familiar with those shout-inducing moments often yielding points. Wimbush has accounted for 11 of Notre Dame’s 23 plays of more than 30 yards. (Seven passes, four rushes.) Aside from the big plays, though, the positives take a little more time to measure. How pivotal has he been to the offense otherwise?

Wimbush has accounted for 59.0 percent of Irish first downs and 63.6 percent of successful third down conversions. (These rates factor in only the first five games of the season, considering Wimbush missed the 33-10 victory at North Carolina due to a grade one right foot strain.)

Put into other words, despite Notre Dame’s rampant rushing success, its most-consistent method of moving the ball downfield involves Wimbush, be it his arm or his legs.

First downs:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 26 13
Georgia 18 11
Boston College 19 12
Michigan State 21 14
Miami (OH) 21 12
North Carolina 27

Third down conversions:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 6-of-13 2-of-9
Georgia 5-of-18 5-of-17, including two first downs gained from drawing pass interference penalties.
Boston College 9-of-18 5-of-11
Michigan State 8-of-14 8-of-10
Miami (OH) 5-of-13 1-of-6
North Carolina 5-of-16

Notre Dame has converted a total of 41.3 percent of its third downs, while Wimbush is at 39.6 percent. (That team total does include the victory over the Tar Heels.)

As for fourth downs the Irish are 7-of-10 and Wimbush is 1-of-2, successfully converting a fourth-and-11 in the first quarter against Miami (OH) by connecting with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for 21 yards to get Notre Dame into the red zone. Three plays later, Wimbush rushed for a one-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

With Wimbush, Notre Dame has a dynamic playmaker capable of turning nothing into something, although he also sometimes turns a something (perhaps an open receiver) into a nothing (overthrown).

Facing the Trojans defense, that former aspect will be needed. USC ranks No. 36 in the country in passing efficiency defense, allows only 35.5 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 50) and has given up touchdowns on a mere 41.4 percent of opponents trips to the red zone (12 of 29).

That isn’t even mentioning the Trojans penchant for forcing turnovers. They have taken away the ball 16 times in seven games, including 10 interceptions.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

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After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said. “It was preseason for him in a lot of ways.”

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.